10 ways this year’s MacArthur Fellows find their ‘genius’

The MacArthur Foundation announced today it has selected 24 individuals — from photographers and historians, to computer scientists and psychologists — for its annual “genius grant,” given to those who have “extraordinary originality and dedication to their creative pursuits.”

How does someone become a so-called “genius”? We reached out to a few of them to ask about their “secret sauce.” What are the quirks and habits that fuel their creativity and enhance their work?

Here’s how eight MacArthur fellows tap into their inner “genius.”

Plan smaller (and more frequent) celebrations

Betsy Levy Paluck, 39, is interested in the idea that our behaviors are not caused by the things we believe, but by society’s expectations. She hopes to find ways to combat bullying, discrimination and violence by understanding social norms — and, in some cases, challenging them.

“I’m big into group celebrations,” she says, explaining that in academia, celebrations don’t happen often enough because they are typically reserved for when discoveries are made and papers are published. Insetad, Paluck plans frequent mini celebrations throughout what might be a long and tedious research process.

The celebrations aren’t only for keeping up morale.

“It is those times, when everyone is relaxed and enjoying themselves, that we can have deeper conversations. We end up always talking about the work. It helps to keep us going and we often come up with creative and new ideas,” she says.

Jot down a daily thought — in words or a doodle

For personal creativity, Paluck draws inspiration from artist Rachel Berger who thought up the icon diary — jotting down a daily thought in words and small drawings.

“I find it useful for me as a way to keep record of things I’m thinking about or make a record of things that bother me so I can clear my mind and move on,” she says. Although drawing is not her forte, she says the process is what is important. “It’s a moment in the day when I’m processing a memory that’s on my mind.”

Escape to a new place (even for just a few minutes)

Regina Barzilay, 46, designs machine learning models to enable computers to understand and generate language. Currently, she is focused in expanding machine learning technology in the field of medicine to advance cancer diagnosis and treatment.

But engaging in creative thinking, she says, primarily involves getting away from her office at MIT.

“When you are a professor, most of the day you are not busy with your own creative thinking: You need to teach a class, you need to got to faculty meeting, you need to advise the students and help them out with their own research,” she says. “If I want to think of something different I really need to isolate myself from people.”

Depending on her goal, Barzilay will head toward her favorite coffee shops in Cambridge and Boston, or look for parks rich with greenery. “They have different functionalities for different type of thinking,” she says.

Hit the pavement

Rami Nashashibi, 45, is a community activist bridging the racial, religious, and socioeconomic divides in inner-city communities. He serves as the executive director if the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which he co-founded in 1997 to unify disconnected Muslim immigrant and African-American communities in Chicago and now provides social services for Chicago’s South Side residents.

The three practices that have become essential for helping him balance a busy day at work are prayer, reading and long bike rides along quiet streets in Chicago.

In the middle of the night and early into the morning, Nashashibi hops on his bike and pedals for as long as he can. There is where he says he finds balance.

“It’s just a different way of looking and feeling the city. It’s a time to think and process. It’s the isolation. There’s something very meditative about becoming one with the bike. I love plugging in a destination and as much as we’re lucky in Chicago — we have 17 miles of beautiful trail on the lake — I really actually prefer city biking,” he says.

Hit the books

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, explores how migration shapes identity and what it means to exists in hybrid spaces, where different people, cultures and influences collide. Her artwork draws on her experiences as an immigrant from Nigeria and the country’s history as a former British colony to tell stories of people in marginalized spaces.

When facing a creative block, Akunyili Crosby turns to literature. She feels connected to others who are telling stories similar to hers but through a different medium, including writers like Junot Díaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina and Chinua Achebe.

“Reading writers who are exploring the same theme as me and hope something will spark and idea. Someone I think about a lot is the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. I look for him in terms of content but also in terms of how he does it. He wrote about a space he knew–he grew up in Nigeria from when it was colonized to when it gained independence. I look to him for that with the urgency to tell stories from marginalized spaces. But another reason I look at him is to figure out how he does this successfully,” she says.

Seek opportunities to watch painters, sculptors or musicians make their art

Dawoud Bey’s portraits prod viewers to confront the reality of his subjects’ experiences. His work includes a 2002-2006 project called Class Pictures, in which he captured a generation of high school students across the country and engaged them in the telling of their own biographies as a way to challenge stereotypes.

Bey, 63, says inspiration requires discipline and choosing to continue to engage with the work. But it can also arrive from looking at other artists’ work and engaging in conversations with what they are doing.

“I spend a lot of time in museums and galleries. I believe that the work we do is in conversation with other photographs and art objects that are in the world and currently being made. And so I often draw inspiration from seeing how other artists are engaging in their process, how they are meeting the challenge of giving coherent and dynamic form to their own ideas and concerns,” Bey wrote in an email.

“I also spend time listening to live music, particularly jazz,” he added. “I find a lot of creative inspiration in music, and I consider the local jazz club to be my “thinking room,” where I go listen to the music and clear my mind.”

Make use of your commute (or whenever else you can make mindful “me time”)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, 41, is an investigative journalist who writes about race and disparity, particularly in education. Her work explores the policies that have maintained school segregation over generations and makes a moral argument for confronting the segregation that persists in American society today.

As a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Hannah-Jones says finding time to herself can be difficult. But surprisingly, she says, she often finds it during her hour-long daily commute to work.

“I think sometimes when you’re a writer and you’re focusing so intensely in your work all the time, it actually can block your creativity because you’re not giving yourself a break and giving yourself a mental space to breathe,” she says.

The time on the train, where she puts her earbuds in and listens to trap music, she says is “time that I have to myself. It gives me the time to clear my mind … time to work and think things through.”

Find your equivalent of an “open mic”

Every few months, Hannah-Jones invites friends and writers to her home.

“I cook and then we have open mic and people can do readings of their work or readings of other people’s work that they admire,” she says. It has been so fulfilling to have this space where we can try out some of the work that we’re working on … by the end of the night we always end up dancing and it provides a very liberating space for myself and other writers.”

Forget the big picture — pay attention to the details (or, in this case, the margins)

Derek Peterson, 46, is documenting the African experience of colonialism by reading between the lines — literally. In the last 10 years, Peterson and his team have collected, digitized and reviewed thousands of local court documents, police files, and government paperwork.

Peterson says the key to finding the heart of the story is looking at the doodles and notes in the margins.

“Historians don’t have inspiration with blinding flashes of light. The key is not to start with large ambitious ideas but to start with small scale ideas that emerge from minor materials.” he said, explaining that through his recent research on Nixon’s relationship with Uganda, he learned that the former president was a “blunt and profane man.”

A musician and chorister, Peterson likens writing history to making music. “Its mastering details, picking up nuances, understanding how phrases work in relationship with other phrases – and then interpreting them as one aspect of a larger composition.”

Surround yourself with a diverse group of people, and talk to them — a lot

Gabriel Victora, 40, works on understanding the immune system’s rules. Ask him where he gets his ideas, and he won’t take credit as a solo act.

“Everything I’ve done has been done with other people in my lab,” he says. Victora regularly takes a stroll around the lab, striking up conversations with people in a wide range of qualifications, from lab rookie to seasoned Phd. It is this diversity that Victora values most. Successful ideas, he says, can come from “naive ideas that turn out to be great.”

“I surround myself with very good people and talk to them a lot. People with any level of experience. That’s also why I think diversity should be encouraged. ” he says.

Here’s a full list of this year’s recipients:
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Painter
Sunil Amrith, Historian
Greg Asbed, Human Rights Strategist
Annie Baker, Playwright
Regina Barzilay, Computer Scientist
Dawoud Bey, Photographer and Educator
Emmanuel Candès, Mathematician and Statistician
Jason De León, Anthropologist
Rhiannon Giddens, Singer, Instrumentalist and Songwriter
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Journalist
Cristina Jiménez Moreta, Social Justice Organizer
Taylor Mac, Theater Artist
Rami Nashashibi, Community Leader
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Fiction Writer and Cultural Critic
Kate Orff, Landscape Architect
Trevor Paglen, Artist and Geographer
Betsy Levy Paluck, Psychologist
Derek Peterson, Historian
Damon Rich, Designer and Urban Planner
Stefan Savage, Computer Scientist
Yuval Sharon, Opera Director / Producer
Tyshawn Sorey, Composer and Musician
Gabriel Victora, Immunologist
Jesmyn Ward, Fiction Writer